Perfectionism Is A Trap

Drummer“Practice makes perfect.”

It’s one of my least favorite sayings in the English language. Yet, last year, this expression topped a poll of words of wisdom Britons picked up in childhood, and continue to use well into their older years.

It did better than “the grass is always greener on the other side,” and “good things come to those who wait.”

Why do I dislike “practice makes perfect” so much?

First of all, as is true for most clichés, it is a broad generalization. Secondly, perfection is a very loaded notion. Some people believe we should reserve that qualification to describe the divine. 

“Practice makes perfect” assumes that those who work hard will be rewarded. If only that were the case! Life isn’t fair, and hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success. The millions of Americans who are working their butts off for minimum wage can attest to that.

And finally, I don’t believe we are created equal. Not everyone was born to win Wimbledon, or write a best-selling novel, no matter how hard and how often they may try.

But let’s start at the beginning by looking at the notion of practice.

GOOD INTENTIONS. BAD ADVICE.

People who tell you “practice makes perfect,” are usually trying to be encouraging, but they rarely define what they mean by “practice.” Of course the general idea is that the more one does something, the better one gets at it. As if repetition alone will lead to positive results.

Practicing can be very helpful, but it won’t make you a gold medal winner, or a world-famous musician. There’s one thing that consistent rehearsal will do, though. 

Practice tends to make permanent, but is that always beneficial?

If you practice the wrong things over and over again, you’ll only become better at what you’re not good at. It’s hard to unlearn bad habits.

If you really want to master something, you have to have a natural talent; you have to develop that talent from an early age, and you need what Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice is a type of practice that’s rich on feedback, aimed at correcting mistakes. Ericsson says it’s the only factor that explains differences in performance in sports, arts, sciences, and intellectual games. Deliberate practice is not something you can do just by yourself. You need precise guidance, evaluation, and accountability.

MORE THAN REPETITION

Guillermo Campitelli is a lecturer at Edith Cowan University. He investigates individual differences in performance, judgements and decisions.

Campitelli has been involved in a study that re-analyzed previous research in the fields of chess and music, including data from Ericsson’s original deliberate practice study.

Campitelli’s research in chess expertise has shown that there is a huge variability in the numbers of hours of individual practice required to become a national master. One player he studied achieved that level after 800 hours (or 2 years). Another did it after 24,000 hours (or 26 years). A significant number of players dedicated more than 10,000 hours of individual practice, and never achieved that level.

His re-analysis showed that, on average, practice only accounts for 30% of the skill differences in music, and 34% of skill differences in chess. Campitelli concluded that deliberate practice is important, but other factors should be taken into account as well. Factors, such as our working memory capacity.

Our working memory capacity or executive functioning, is the ability to store and process information at the same time. Some of us are better at it than others, depending on the gene pool we came from.

People with high levels of working memory, outperformed those with lower working memory capacity in tasks such as piano sight reading, even when the latter group had extensive experience and knowledge of the task (source).

THE FLAW OF FLAWLESS

Practice isn’t all it’s cooked up to be, so let’s now turn to the notion of perfection. I think striving for perfection puts unnecessary pressure on people to achieve something that isn’t necessarily humanly possible, or even desirable.

One way to achieve perfection is to avoid errors. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, avoiding errors can lead to people sticking to what they already know by playing it safe. That’s boring, and it stifles growth and creativity. Those who are trying to avoid something are usually motivated by fear, which can take away the pleasure of accomplishment. 

If we really wish to make progress, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, take risks, and accept that we will make mistakes along the way, from which we will (hopefully) learn. To me, steady progress is a better and more enjoyable outcome than perfection.

There’s one last reason why perfection isn’t such a great goal.

LISTEN TO THE BEAT

In a lot of popular music, live drummers are being replaced by drum machines. These machines don’t make any mistakes. They’ll give you a consistent, perfect beat every single time. That’s something professional drummers cannot do.

Professional drummers aren’t robots. Even when playing to a super steady metronomic beat, they tend to fluctuate slightly. According to researcher Holger Henning, these variations are typically small, perhaps 10 to 20 milliseconds. Yet, listeners can tell the difference. Not only that, research has shown that these human variations are more pleasing to the ear.

Many electronic music programs now have “randomizing” functions to help producers add imperfections back into the music to give it a more human feel. However, they cannot produce the same rhythmic variety that people subconsciously recognize and prefer. There’s is no improvisation, spontaneity, or heart and soul in software. 

Musician Jojo Mayer says in his mini-documentary Between Zero and One:

“Digital computers are binary machines, which means they compute tasks making decisions between zero and one — yes or no. When we play music and generate it in real-time, when we improvise, that decision-making process gets condensed to a degree where it surpasses our capability to make conscious decisions anymore. When that happens, I am entering that zone beyond zero and one, beyond yes and no, which is a space that machines cannot access yet. That’s the human experience — right between zero and one.”

To put it differently: It’s the imperfections, that make a performance perfect.”

Think about that, if you’re a perfectionist.

Keep it in mind, the next time you wonder if voice actors will ever be completely replaced by text-to-speech software.

Take it from me: It will never happen!

Deliberate practice helps you prepare and perform better, but it doesn’t make you perfect.

And that’s perfectly fine with me.

Paul Strikwerda

PS Be sweet. Pleased retweet.

photo credit: Drummer with the cut outs at Oswestry Music Live 2008 via photopin (license)

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs." goo.gl/ihVpMc

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Personal

29 Responses to Perfectionism Is A Trap

  1. Pingback: A Controversial Year | Nethervoice

  2. Jack Bair

    Good article! Thanks!

    [Reply]

  3. Paul Payton

    Excellent as always, Paul. As Jose Carlos said, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” I agree – except when it coms to my dentist and my surgeon! (And my Higher Power, but that’s for another discussion.) Keep up the good work and the good wisdom, my friend!

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  4. Mary

    Alright, I’ll admit, I’m struggling with accepting that I can never be perfect. Sometimes I’m very hard on myself if I don’t walk out of a session feeling that my work was flawless, or wondering if the client was happy with my work. For years and years I’ve sought ways to be a people pleaser, and I pretty much figured out that my horrendous days in elementary school are to blame. For years, I was a slow learner and received the worst education of my life as a child. From 2nd grade to 7th grade teachers didn’t use encouragement or patience. They were menacing, bullying figures who would purposefully humiliate me in front of the class if I couldn’t answer a question according to their standards. They would demonstrate me as an example of what not to be by calling out my faults of not being able to read fast enough, solve match problems fast enough, or complete assignments in specified manners they wanted. Despite being someone who showed up everyday, kept my mouth shut, turned in my homework on time, and participated in class, it was NEVER enough. The teachers taught me self-loathing, humiliation, fear, heartbreak, and much more. Once I was out of elementary school, things changed. People saw my potential and helped me nourish my talents. But those past years did severe damage to me and to this day I feel the need to achieve perfectionism or all the dreams, goals and plans I desire for my future will never come to be. That’s what the monsters who called themselves my teachers in elementary school taught me day by day. Sometimes I wonder if they wanted me to fail later life. Did they hate me so much because I wasn’t blessed with understanding how to learn at their pace? Or was I just an easy target for them to pick on because I wasn’t perfect no matter how hard I tried?

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you so much for sharing this heart-wrenching story, Mary. It’s a sad fact: so many people are still wearing the same small shoes from their childhood years that no longer fit. They are painful remnants of the past that is always present. It takes courage and determination to let go of these shoes, and liberate yourself from their tight grip. But you’ve got to, in order to move forward.

    Your history is just one part of who you are. Every day, you get a new chance to reshape your life, and make your own choices. Every day is an opportunity to become who you really are.

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    Howard Ellison Reply:

    Mary – look how well you did. That’s the real you. Those early teachers who couldn’t see your potential, and didn’t even treat you with respect, were deeply at fault: their conclusions were worthless.
    Recently I caught up with a schoolmate of more than 50 years ago. He had a rough time at the hands of ‘teachers’, who dumped him in bottom stream. He went on to be a NASA physicist with a PhD – and has many other capabilities.

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  5. José Carlos G. Ribeiro

    — Quote: —
    “Perfection is a very loaded notion. Some people believe we should reserve that qualification to describe the divine.”
    “I think striving for perfection puts unnecessary pressure on people to achieve something that isn’t necessarily humanly possible, or even desirable.”
    “The perfectionist’ trap is that nothing will ever be good enough.”

    I once was told a ‘better’ cliche: “Perfect is enemy of Good”. The attempts to attain perfection too many times result in good (or bad) things not happening.

    — Quote: —
    “Practice tends to make permanent, but is that always beneficial?
    Of course the general idea is that the more one does something, the better one gets at it.”

    Practice helps us to do things without necessarily having to ‘think’ about what we are doing. Practice creates a script we learn and use when we have to do something. Practice has taught us what works and what doesn’t. But there is a ‘but’… Reality is NEVER the same, ever. So executing a script learned from the past will never be ‘perfect’ for the reality as it is now.

    — Quote: —
    “LISTEN TO THE BEAT
    In a lot of popular music, live drummers are being replaced by drum machines.”

    I remember a film of Chet Baker’s life. When he entered a club, the owner would hand him a piston and ask him to ‘Tell us how you feel’.
    I used to play a guitar (not so perfect) but people loved it. I love Baden Powell playing a guitar because of the typically small 10 to 20 milliseconds variations which carry emotions to my ears.

    — Quote: —
    “Wonderfully put, Niki. It almost reads like a personal creed! Thank you for sharing this. I’m sure it will inspire many readers, me included!”

    I second the motion…

    — Quote: —
    “All of us are a work in progress. That’s how we came out of the factory, and it’s what makes us vulnerably human.”

    Nature is not afraid of making mistakes. We are the (actual, imperfect) result of uncountable errors and (comparably) very little ‘right’ changes over a very long period of time. But Nature has all the time in the world and we are still not ‘perfect’.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you for sharing all these quotes, as well as your thoughts, José. I’m just looking at a blossoming tree in our front yard. It has no need for practice or perfection. It simply is, and yet it grows more beautiful every year.

    At times, I wish we could all take a hint from nature.

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  6. Jim Edgar

    Indeed.
    Good to see Steve H. quote the “…PERFECT practice makes perfect” line – that was the thing which popped into my brain while reading this excellent column.

    Another way to describe it is “Training to Fail” – which cropped up many years ago while trying to learn various physical skills on a bike. The idea was after two or three times attempting something (say learning how to ride over a large fallen tree) and not achieving it, you were only reinforcing a sequence of failure in your brain and muscles. That was the point at which you had to stop, step back and visualize what you wanted to happen, as opposed to slogging forward.

    As far as the performance aspect…perfect is boring. We are the sum of our experiences and it is the combination of those things which create unique and new moments which only we can bring forth.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re absolutely right that bad training only reinforces bad habits. Learning is easier than unlearning. That’s why I admire actors who have to deal with last0-minute script changes. They’ve spent a considerable amount of time learning their lines a certain way, and then the writer or director decides to alter or add a few lines. Can you imagine?

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    It’s good to keep in mind that the “perfect practice” is probably different for everybody. As you say, we come from different places and we have different talents and needs. There’s no cookie cutter approach to success.

    [Reply]

  7. Howard Ellison

    A sound recordist I knew stencilled this on his equipment cupboard: “There is hope in honest error: none in the icy perfections of the mere stylist”.
    He did well, too – went on to be a BBC religious broadcasts producer, rest his soul.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    That’s a wonderful quote. Thanks for sharing! I’ve worked for the BBC’s religious department. I might even know this producer.

    [Reply]

  8. Taylor Stonely

    Perfection is always going to be a means to an end, and not the end itself. Those who strive to better themselves — through diligent effort, constant and consistent feedback by experts in their field, and humility to accept what can and cannot be changed — will always be a step or two above those who simply do without help.

    The part about deliberate practice made a lot of sense. It is not helpful to create muscle memory when the action is flawed. You’ve only created a (nearly) perfect way to do something wrong, every time. However, when one focuses on a particular aspect of their performance that needs help, if they get guidance on how to improve that aspect, the overall performance improves.

    Enjoyed the article as always! Thanks, Paul, for your introspection that is spot on!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I just came from the gym, and I saw quite a few people practice in a way that wasn’t appropriate or healthy. Bad practice can actually be harmful. That’s why it’s so important to have a good coach who can show you what to do and not to do.

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  9. Niki Kernow

    “Practice makes perfect” has got me where I am today…not where I want to be!

    The fear of failure has held me back for so long; perfectionism is a fantasy and a curse. Now I strive to be the best that I can be at this particular moment in time and embrace my imperfections as they are my uniqueness. I believe personality will always trump technique and I agree that the flaws are what makes something interesting and engaging.

    Perfection equates to judgement, and judgement is cerebral. I want to make people feel not think, I want to connect and I don’t believe there is anything that emotional connects two human beings more than vulnerability.

    I endeavour to step out of my comfort zone, take creative risks and make deliberate practice a habit so tomorrow I can be better than today. I will be courageous and open myself up to criticism which in turn also allows for appreciation.

    Even Mary Poppins was only “practically perfect in every way”! 😉

    Thank you for another great article and reality check Paul.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Wonderfully put, Niki. It almost reads like a personal creed! Thank you for sharing this. I’m sure it will inspire many readers, me included!

    [Reply]

  10. Kent Ingram

    Right on, Paul! It took a long time for me to come to terms with perfection. It was a mountain to try to climb and attain, but the mountaintop was always out of reach. Plus, the notion that I had to be perfect in all things stems from my childhood, where perfection meant I was a good and worthy person, in my mind. Losing all that fear made my performances, as well as life itself, much better.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Sometimes, we grownups are still wearing shoes from our childhood. They’re painfully small, and they prevent us from moving on. I’m glad you were able to step out of those shoes, so you could fill your own, Kent!

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  11. steve hammill

    Good article, Paul…especially for someone afflicted with a perfectionist nature.

    “Perfect practice makes perfect.” – Vince Lombardi

    Actually the complete quote starts by saying practice does not make perfect.

    >>>research has shown that these human variations are more pleasing to the ear

    That’s the magic part, Paul. And not all human variations are more pleasing.

    I’ve always believed that no one is a better VO than me when I’m “on.” Unfortunately, being on every time I work doesn’t happen. Fortunately, it happens enough that I get work and I strive to be “on” a higher and higher percentage of the time.

    I’m currently trying to re-learn the close-up magic that I did professionally 20+ years ago. It’s slow going. The hands ain’t what they used to be. …but I am practicing as perfectly as I can. I use a technique that I call “slow practice” …don’t know the correct name for the technique. It is just repeating the sleight in slow motion, as perfectly as possible, over and over and over again.

    Once learned as perfectly as possible, a magician adds their humanity to the effect to make it as magical as possible.

    As for TTS “completely” replacing VOs, I agreed. However, TTS continues to take more and more VO market share, especially in niche portions of the industrial market such as eLearning.

    But great VOs have nothing to fear from TTS. …and great has more to do with giving the producer what they want in a session than how “good” you sound.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    The research I was referring to came from this article.

    In my research I came across the Vince Lombardi quote. The problem is that he does not define perfect practice.

    Slow practice is indeed one of the methods used by e.g. sports people. Practicing the right motions in their mind through visualization, also has a tremendous effect. I wonder if the same principle applies to auditory “hallucinations.”

    [Reply]

  12. jennifer m dixon

    I like the ‘imperfections make a performance perfect’ phrase too! In actual fact perfection is a figment of the imagination- it doesn’t really exist–doing the best we can do and then some is perhaps close to what can be considered ‘perfect’ but it is all so relative.I remember the controversy over Maria Callas’ voice cf with Renata Tebaldi voice . Their ‘imperfections’ made their performances fabulously ‘perfect’ in my opinion(I’ve always aimed for balance!)- for very different reasons!!! but oh boy that was only one opinion out of so many – who was right?? It was in the ear of the listener as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.We all bring our own interesting imperfections to are judgements too.
    Severe Judgement can be so debilitating and really that is what perfectionism is-debilitating unless one puts it into perspective. Rambling over for the day 😉 Be well.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I agree with you, Jennifer. By what standards do we judge perfection, and how objective are these standards?

    A musician can hit all the notes in the score, and yet give a shallow performance. The pianist Horowitz was notorious for not playing all the notes, and yet he’s considered one of the greats.

    [Reply]

  13. Debbie Grattan

    Paul – another terrific article with an interesting perspective for sure. Having a background in live theater, and even murder mystery dinner theatre for a while, I can tell you that it’s the improvisation to cover for some imperfection that happens during performance that the audience loves and remembers. It reminds us all that we’re only human and not machines of perfection. I think striving for excellence in all things can be a better goal. And even then, we have to forgive ourselves when we fall short…which is inevitable at times.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Great observations, Debbie. Marketing mumbo-jumbo encourages people to search for the “perfect” solution, and the “perfect” partner. It’s an illusive quest that sets people up for failure. Some days even our best self isn’t as good as on other days, and that should be okay. All of us are a work in progress. That’s how we came out of the factory, and it’s what makes us vulnerably human.

    [Reply]

  14. Conchita Congo

    Thank you, Paul! This article lifted so much weight off my shoulders as I strive to step up my VO career. I’ve been striving for “perfect”, while overlooking what the human, “imperfect” me brings to the table.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    The perfectionist’ trap is that nothing will ever be good enough. I know colleagues who are afraid to send in auditions because of that. They keep on twisting and tweaking until they’re last in line. I’m all for giving it all you got, but leave perfection to the gods!

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  15. IAN WRIGHT

    Another very good perspective on the world, Paul. The line “It’s the imperfections, that make a performance perfect” hits a home run, period. I still work in radio (mainly Sales)but my first workplace love is STILL working LIVE (not voice tracked)on-air. It’s like broadcasting naked ! LIVE with no safety nets, you do it and you do it warts and all. Make an error and turn the negative into an entertaining positive ! So much radio I hear these days is recorded (voice tracked). Sure it’s tight and supposedly ‘perfect’, but it’s not. In so many cases the announcer’s delivery sounds so mechanical and cold, it actually sounds calculated, computerised and without real empathy for the LIVE audience and the music being presented. In radio speak, ‘Perfection’ is when you do your preparation, execute your best in a LIVE situation and instantly capitalise on your humanness, to stumble then recover. Never be afraid to ‘expose’ the real you. Another reason I speak of broadcasting ‘naked’. Thanks & regards from South Australia.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Amen to that, Ian. Canned programming has lost the spontaneity and excitement of a live broadcast. People can feel that it’s not real. In the end, authenticity trumps so-called “perfection.”

    [Reply]

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